The sudden death of granny Heather
In this paper approaches from grief counselling, individual and family therapy, are applied to fictional characters in BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Archers’; ‘an everyday story of country folk’.
Following the sudden death of Granny Heather, we explore attachment, loss and grief. We accompany Heather’s daughter Ruth, as she searches for ‘homeostasis’: a state of equanimity, composure and balance within dynamic family systems.
We also examine:
- the mourning process
- anticipatory grief
- the ‘tasks’ and ‘mediators’ of mourning
- the place of ‘continuing bonds’.
Background and History
Ruth Archer was brought up in Prudhoe in Northumberland, the only child of Solly and Heather Pritchard. She came to Brookfield farm as an agricultural student for work experience, hired by Phil Archer, David’s father. Ruth met David Archer at Brookfield Farm and they were married in 1988.
In 2001, conscious they were getting older, David’s mother and father, Phil and Jill, decided to pass the family farm on to David and Ruth. Phil and Jill moved into ‘Glebe’, a cottage in the village. David’s siblings – Shula, Kenton and Elizabeth - were not interested in farming, but the inheritance caused friction within the family. Eventually it was decided that Brookfield farm would be formed into a limited company. Shula, Kenton and Elizabeth would hold shares that would entitle them to some of the proceeds in the event that the farm was sold. David’s siblings live locally, along with several other members of the extended Archer family.
Phil Archer died peacefully in his chair in 2009. He is survived by Jill, who was 85 on 3rd October 2015, just after Heather’s death. Feeling lonely and unsettled by a burglary at Glebe, Jill recently moved back into Brookfield with David and Ruth and their three children Pip (named after Phil), Josh and Ben.
Ruth’s mother, Heather, continued to live in Prudhoe and provided safe, sensible support and reassurance for Ruth, often enabling Ruth to put her difficulties and concerns into perspective. Ruth could rely on her mum in a crisis and Heather provided love and nurture for the whole family during Ruth’s breast cancer and following her miscarriage just last year. Heather was kind and generous and a devoted Grandmother. She and Ruth spoke with a warm, slightly ‘earthy’ accent and Heather referred to everyone as ‘pet’.
There was some gentle rivalry between Jill and Heather, experienced mostly by Jill, as she defended her position as family matriarch.
Ruth has an enduring friendship with Usha Franks, who is also something of an ‘outsider’. Usha works as a solicitor in the nearby village. She is Hindu and is married to the local vicar. Both Ruth and Usha value and appreciate the mutual support they are able to offer each other.
Events leading up to the death of granny Heather
There are three important developments providing the context immediately prior to the death of Granny Heather.
The first is the plan, fiercely resisted in the village, to build a new road through Ambridge. This new road, if it goes ahead, will pass straight through Brookfield cutting the farm in two. This threat, along with Heather’s failing health, leads David and Ruth to decide to sell up and move to Hexham. Ruth is pleased because she will be closer to her widowed mother who is becoming increasingly frail and a little confused.
This move becomes even more attractive when a local businessman, distrusted and disliked in the village, makes an offer to buy Brookfield that is well in excess of the asking price. This will benefit David and Ruth and David’s siblings. However, the sale is seen in the village as something of a capitulation and betrayal.
Arrangements for the move are well advanced when David decides, at the eleventh hour, that he cannot leave Brookfield after all. He has been struggling with the decision for some time when, as they are clearing out the attic, he and Jill discover his Grandfather’s old farm journals. The enduring legacy and the continuing bonds that connect David to his family and the farm are decisive in his decision making. He begins to reflect upon the difficulties faced by past generations of Archers on the farm and he hears his own father’s voice praising David for his commitment to Brookfield. The decision not to move to Hexham is made without any discussion with Ruth, who is in Prudhoe with her mother at the time.
The second issue is about Heather’s failing health. She has had a stroke and a fall and has had to move temporarily into a care home. Ruth, still smarting about David’s unilateral decision to remain at Brookfield, tells him that Heather has to move to Brookfield. David raises obstacles and then tries to avoid the issue. But Ruth fights her corner and says, ‘we are not letting Heather down again’. Ruth is angry and alludes to the support they have given David’s mother Jill. Ruth says that there seems to be ‘one rule for the Archer family and a different one for everyone else’.
The decision is made and preparations are underway for Heather to move out of the care home, an orthopedic bed is installed at Brookfield. This means that Jill will have to move to Lower Loxley, the stately home and conference centre owned and run by her daughter Elizabeth. David feels uncomfortable about displacing his own mother from her family home at Brookfield. Jill, with exaggerated stoicism, insists that she is fortunate to have so many choices of places to live in the village. Of course this simply reveals how hurt Jill really is to have been cast out from her own home by her daughter-in-law, which was always Jill’s intention.
Ruth is distressed by how frail her mother has become and how she has changed. She tells Usha how Heather used to be a “big personality” and a “real presence” and now, “she is a whisp of a thing” and “only half there”. Ruth, encouraged to talk by Usha, says that Heather used to be so opinionated but, “if I ask her something now she just says ‘I don’t mind pet, you decide for me’.”
Ruth tells her sister-in-law, Jolene, that she hates seeing Heather so vulnerable; “it is breaking me heart”. Jolene is empathetic and Ruth feels she really understands when she says: “it is just so hard mothering your own mother.”
David and the children are also feeling sad about Heather’s increasing frailty and Pip may have already begun the anticipatory grieving process. When a friend notices that Pip is wearing a new necklace, Pip reveals that she may be thinking about the loss ahead. She says:
“…it belonged [she corrects herself]…belongs to my Granny Heather. She says her necklace days are over”.
She goes on to say:
“I can’t get my head around her being so poorly... This is my Granny Heather who used to race us to the top of Lakey Hill”.
The third development concerns Ruth’s sense of her own value and worth as a daughter, wife and mother. She also questions her place in the Archer family and contribution as a partner in Brookfield Farm. She tells Usha that she feels torn between being at Brookfield and being with her own mother.
She says: “I don’t know where I belong’.
She also says that David and Pip are, “…so tight together” they are making decisions and they don’t need me, “I feel like an outsider” and that, “my opinion counts for nothing”.
Ruth is still dwelling on the big decision David made unilaterally, with Jill close by his side, about staying at Brookfield. She is sensitive about the subsequent decisions he has made without her; about lending money to his brother Kenton and improvements on the farm such as the precipitous introduction of Stupple Turnips and Ewe Hogs! When she tackles him angrily about this, he explains that he was trying to reduce the burden on her so she could devote her time and energy to Heather.
The sudden death of granny Heather on 28 September 2015
All Heather’s things are packed and Josh drives on ahead with the van on the journey to Ambridge, leaving Ruth to usher Heather into the car. Heather is fussing, “…can you hold on a minute pet”, she checks they have packed her gift for Pip’s graduation celebration.
They are finally on their way and singing: “My old man says follow the van…”.
Heather has a sleep and Ruth says she will wake her at the services. Heather says, “I’ve got so much to look forward to.” Ruth reassures Heather saying, “You will never be alone again…”
When they arrive at the service station in Nottingham, Ruth can’t wake her mother.
David is busy on the farm and has three missed calls from Ruth. When he calls back Ruth is in a panic and says: “It’s mum, she’s ill, she won’t wake up…”
David leaves Ambridge in a hurry and when he arrives at the hospital, Ruth is in shock and says:
“Oh David, she had another stroke… she never woke up… she never came round… she’s, she’s dead”.
Immediate responses to the death of granny Heather
Despite her age and her earlier stroke, Heather’s death was sudden and unexpected. In fact, she and Ruth had been looking forward and making plans as they began the journey to Brookfield. Ruth’s immediate response to Heather’s death, quite understandably, is one of ‘shock’ and ‘disbelief’.
Kubler-Ross says “the world changes so dramatically, no preparation, no goodbyes, just the loudest absence one could imagine”. (2005 p195)
Bowlby describes this early time in the period immediately following a loss as the ‘protest phase’. The time when Ruth might argue, “But how can it be true – we were singing together only moments ago?”.
The idea of different phases or stages of mourning are familiar and have been plotted on a graph by Kubler-Ross, and others, as a grief or change curve depicting mood changes over time.
Kubler-Ross says that the initial denial or disbelief serves a purpose; allowing the bereaved person to pace their feelings of grief so that they only let in as much as they can handle at the time. “In sudden death there is no time for the mind to prepare, to brace for the thunderous pain that will leave you in a severe state of shock”. (2005 p195)
William Worden prefers to think in terms of ‘tasks’ of mourning. This suggests that the mourner is active in the process rather than being swept along. The first task he says is ‘to accept the reality of the loss’. In the Archer’s this is the case for Ruth and her family and for the wider community.
When the sad news reaches Ambridge, family and neighbours discuss and absorb the circumstances of Heather’s death: "Poor Heather, wasn’t even able to die in her own bed”, “it all happened in some god- forsaken car park”, “couldn’t have been much grimmer could it?”
Kubler-Ross says, “There is no better or worse death. Loss is loss, and the grief that follows is a subjective pain that only we will know… We are never prepared to lose a loved one”. (2005 p 200)
Neighbours rally round to share the loss, offer sympathy and bring food to provide practical support. Ruth is still numb and she struggles to engage or appreciate the kindness.
Kubler Ross talks of stages of grief. She emphasises that the stages are not stops on a linear timeline of grief and individuals do not progress in a prescribed order. Each person, of course, has a unique experience of grief with much depending on the nature of their attachment and the manner of the death. This is what Worden calls the ‘mediators’ of mourning and includes other factors such as age – the grief reaction of a grandparent like Heather who dies of natural causes for example, is likely to be different from the loss of a child. However, having said the experience is unique for each individual, there are also similarities that enable us to recognise a range of responses that may or may not occur in each individual case.
Heather was important to Ruth at, in neuro-linquistic terms, the level of ‘identity’. That is, Heather was the solid rock
on which Ruth understood, defined and presented herself in the world. This enabled her to be confident about herself. However, even before Heather’s death, in discussion with Usher, Ruth is beginning to feel unsure about her self-worth and place in the Archer family. Maybe she already feels the ground beginning to shift. Without Heather, Ruth is left shaken and off-balance. She is not eating or sleeping. She tells David, “Whenever I close my eyes I am right back there at the services...”.
Worden believes that there are four tasks to be completed by the mourner and that any tasks not completed can ‘impair further growth and development’. (1983 p 27)
However, Worden is also keen to emphasise that the process is fluid, that there is no fixed progression and all the tasks can be reworked and revisited over time. He refers to the ‘dual process’ of mourning where the griever oscillates between two positions:
- Preoccupation with the loss and feelings.
- Focus on adjustments to life without the deceased.
As the permanence of Heather’s death becomes a reality for Ruth, she tries to avoid reminders. The shock and denial phase is often followed by anger. Ruth’s anger emerges as she begins to process the pain of her loss.
Ruth is angry with David and her anger is also turned in on herself as ‘guilt’ about what she did and didn’t do for Heather. She feels angry at the situation; that she couldn’t stop it happening and her anger is replacing the numbness as she reconnects with her feelings.
She shouts at David: “Get rid of this bloody bed… send it back or throw it away… stop it reminding me how badly I let mum down.”.
Kubler-Ross shares the words of another individual in the midst of this stage of grief:
“I’m angry that I have to keep living in the world where I can’t find her, call her, or see her. I can’t find the person I loved or needed anywhere”. (2005 p12)
Ruth finds Heather’s graduation present for Pip, and this last kindness reinforces the guilt Ruth feels about Heather’s last few months living alone in Prudhoe. She says, “Right up until the end she was thinking about her grandchildren”.
In the depth of her grief, Ruth is acting as if Heather’s death was preventable. Something has gone badly wrong, her mother is dead, and Ruth blames herself, after all, she was there, saw it happen and she was Heather’s only child. She also begins to blame David and he is in danger of becoming a scapegoat as Ruth attempts to escape the pain by ‘displacing’ her grief.
Ruth is upset and says to David: “If we had done the right thing... If we had stuck to our plans and moved up to Hexham so that we could have cared for her and looked after her properly, she might still be alive and well now.”
David says, “Love, maybe she would and maybe she wouldn’t. Who knows what might have happened…”.
Ruth needs to share her guilt and misery and says: “Maybe we can’t say for sure. But that’s what so awful about it. For me, you, all of us – we will have to live with that doubt for the rest of our lives, won’t we?”.
David absorbs this emotional outpouring from Ruth, probably sensing she needs to work through her anger. He could have argued, but doesn’t, he could have said:
“Come on Ruth, what would we be feeling now if we had just sold the farm, uprooted the family and moved to Hexham to be closer to Heather?”
Jill is trying to do what she can to help. She has postponed her birthday celebration and is trying to stay away. However, because she wants to be supportive, she has made a chicken dinner and brings it over to Brookfield. However, this upsets Ruth and she says to David:
“I know it’s not Jill’s fault, she’s only trying to help, but it’s hard for me to see her there in the kitchen instead of me own mum.”.
Ruth talks to one of the other farmers, outside the family, about being an only child. She says: “it was only me and mum and dad. They spoilt me rotten I suppose, although, I didn’t see it that way. I was also the centre of their world. Then I came here and joined this huge extended family”.
Ruth is continuing to try and make sense of what has happened and goes on:
“It was difficult knowing where to fit in between so many sisters-in-law, aunties, uncles, cousins everywhere you look… David knows automatically and so do the children – there is never any doubt where they belong. That is why it was so good talking to mum sometimes and putting my own stupid worries in perspective.”
This response is a continuation of the early disorientation Ruth explored with Usher.
Funerals have the effect of drawing a social support network close to the bereaved family. Sometimes it may feel as if the funeral is a little early in the grieving process and Ruth tells Usha that it is still unreal and she feels empty. But funerals can also help with the first task of mourning by making the loss more real.
Ruth and Usha talk about closing a chapter and recognise that Ruth’s continued connection with Prudhoe is coming to an end. Ruth says, “Already this place doesn’t feel like home anymore”. It sounds as if she is beginning to come to terms with her loss and accept the permanence of the separation from Heather. Usha helpfully encourages Ruth to look back on Heather’s whole life and not just the last difficult year. They focus on Heather and reflect upon her life.
But, it is too soon for Ruth, “the last chapter” for Heather she says, "…was pain, confusion and loneliness”. Ruth says, “I let her down when she needed me most.”.
Usha counters this and insists, “No daughter could have been more attentive”. But it is still too early for Ruth to accept this. Grief cannot be hurried. However, eventually, in most cases, an emotional balance will return.
For Ruth, Heather’s death is the result of her failure to care for her mother, rather than an inevitable part of the normal life cycle. It is a period of loss, of change and transition in how she relates to herself, her mother, and the world around her.
Heather had always provided Ruth with a ‘secure base’ to go into the world and ‘explore’, and this allowed Ruth to maintain a sense of equilibrium and balance within the Archer family. Immediately before and after Heather’s death, Ruth is fighting for parity within the family and she is trying to prioritise the needs of her mother over David’s. Ruth feels resentful when she sees Jill in the kitchen at Brookfield and has a sense of injustice that Jill is still alive when her own mother is dead. Ruth is uncomfortable with these unworthy feelings and with her need to deflect her grief by directing her anger towards Jill.
Ruth’s belief in the possibility of being able to be physically reunited with Heather when needed is a central aspect of her loss. However, in time Ruth may be able to take strength from a mental, internal representation of her mother that may help her preserve a sense of identity and a meaningful connection with the past. Field et al (2005) describe this as: “…a valued part of the bereaved’s autobiography”.
In time, Ruth may be able to construct a bond with Heather as an inner comforting presence. Heather may become a ‘virtual’ role model for Ruth, to whom she turns for guidance and from whom she takes learning and wisdom. This presence will enable Ruth to retain an attachment bond that sustains her and provides the safe haven and secure base that Heather provided in life. Ruth may begin to feel that her mother has become part of, or an extension of, her own identity.
As we witnessed, David has his own continuing bond with his father and he takes strength and guidance from his legacy. David is not uncritical of Phil but finds, fundamentally, he shares his core values and beliefs. This is an emotional connection that serves to direct David back to what really matters to him and has become part of who he is.
Heather was a source of common sense and perspective for Ruth and so she may begin to turn to this internalised presence when she needs to steady herself. It is also possible that the bond will shift and change over time and Ruth may find that she accepts or rejects a moral position she has identified with Heather, in order to clarify her own changing values. Mourning is an evolving process.
Field et al (2005) say that continuing bonds, with an important attachment figure, can enable “the bereaved to move toward a new life and confront the unknown in the context of continuing to feel psychologically ‘held’ by the deceased.” (p 285)
Ruth feels she has not done enough for her mother and is looking forward to looking after her at Brookfield. However, Heather’s sudden death leaves Ruth’s debt outstanding and now it can never be re-paid. In her grief, Ruth looks to find someone to blame: berating David and resenting Jill. Arguably, one of the least effective ways of handling grief and anger is through finding a scapegoat.
With her supportive family and friends, Ruth will, in time, regain her sense of perspective and balance. She is likely to complete all four tasks of mourning and will find an enduring connection and continuing attachment bond with Heather which will help sustain her for the rest of her life.
Bowlby, J (1980) Attachment and loss. Vol 3 Sadness and depression. New York: Basic Books
Field, N.P, Gao, B. and Paderna, L. (2005) Continuing Bonds in Bereavement: An Attachement Theory Based Perspective. In Dying Studies, 29. P 277 – 299. Routledge.
Kubler-Ross, E and Kessler, D (2005) On Grief and Grieving. Simon and Schuster UK Ltd
Worden, W.J (1983) Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy – A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner. Routledge, East Sussex.
 The tendency of a body to seek and maintain a condition of balance or equilibrium within its internal environment, even when faced with external changes.
 Refers to a grief reaction that occurs before an impending loss. Discussed by, amongst others, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
 J. William Worden Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health practitioner (1983)
 ‘Continuing Bonds: Another View of Grief’, edited by Klass, Silverman and Nickman. 1996
 See Robert B Dilts and his theory of logical levels of change in: Changing Belief Systems with Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).
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About Charlotte Thomas
Charlotte Thomas is a qualified person-centred counsellor working with individuals and couples. She has a private practice in West Sussex.
She has been writing a series of articles using the characters from the 'The Archers' as her inspiration. Here she explores the experience of grief and loss following the death of an attachment figure.